The British and our continental European neighbours share at least one thing in common. There are times when neither of us can see the wood for the trees. The past few months of Brexit negotiations have been consumed by interminable exchanges on budget contributions, internal markets, WTO rules and passporting for the City of London.
All of these issues are worthy and have to be addressed, but we are left with the wider world assuming that Napoleon was right and that we are, after all, a nation of shopkeepers and not much else. It also implies the same for the French and the Germans, who seem to be having much the same obsessions.
However, the most dangerous consequences of Britain leaving the European Union are not exports and trade. A deal of some kind with the EU will be negotiated now that the British government, rather incoherently, appears to be accepting the need for transitional arrangements over several years. A greater challenge of Brexit to us and the EU is whether, through design or indifference, we will allow Europe to be weakened in a globalising world and our joint security to be compromised at a time when Russia is resurgent and China is emerging as a new superpower. It is, of course, Britain, through the result of our referendum, that is responsible for this serious threat having emerged, but the EU nations have as much interest as we do in dealing with it.
There are two separate, though interconnected, dimensions to the geopolitical challenge we are now going to face. The first is the defence and security of Europe at a time when Vladimir Putin is a serious menace and Donald Trump is, at best, ambivalent about his commitment to Nato and the security of Europe.
The second issue is whether Europe’s voice in the wider world will be heard and listened to by the US, China, Russia and other global powers when an emerging European common foreign policy will no longer have the military weight and diplomatic experience of the United Kingdom to support it. It is not only the UK that now risks irrelevance in global foreign and security policy. It is the European Union as well.
Some take comfort in the fact that the military defence of Europe is the responsibility of Nato and not the EU and that is not directly affected by Brexit. That has considerable truth if it comes to a stark question of peace or war.
Yet the security of Britain and Europe does not depend on Nato alone. It requires, also, political stability, economic growth and diplomatic strength.
It also requires the closest European co-operation in ensuring that Europe’s military capability is of the highest order. Without the UK to veto them, EU countries may now wish to go forward with their proposal to have an EU command and control headquarters operating alongside Nato, to handle relatively modest military operations in support of the UN or for humanitarian purposes. Time will tell whether that will help or harm Nato.
Much more important will be European countries, including the UK, drawing closer together to maximise their combat and deterrence capability, both to support the US as part of Nato or, in the longer term, to ensure Europe’s ability to defend itself if US resolve were ever to weaken. Such a strengthening of Europe’s military capability is quite simply impossible without the direct involvement of the UK.
Together with France, we are Europe’s sole possessors of nuclear weapons without which an aggressive Russia could blackmail Europe over the decades ahead. Furthermore, global trade and economic security requires European nations to have the capability to protect their own territorial seas, and our common merchant sea lanes in the Atlantic, the Gulf and elsewhere.
The Royal Navy, even in its current reduced state, remains Europe’s paramount naval and maritime power; a position that will be further enhanced when the two new carriers come into service.
The second strategic issue is how Europe is to project its foreign policy interests in the wider world unless the UK is around the table with Germany, France and other European states when crisis issues are being discussed. The two great successes of European foreign policy have been the financial sanctions imposed on Russia over Ukraine, and Europe’s sanctions on Iran that helped make possible the nuclear deal with that country. Neither would have been possible without the City of London’s financial strength.
Just as the Iran deal was negotiated by the permanent members of the security council plus Germany, so there will need to be a EU+UK forum available when future crises need to be addressed.
Long before the EU existed, Britain always joined with other European nations to prevent tyranny or aggression in Europe. We helped defeat Napoleon in 1815. We declared war on the Kaiser in 1914 and on Hitler in 1939. We did so not because we faced invasion at the beginning of those crises but because we recognised that there is no strategic threat to continental Europe that is not also a threat to the UK.
Britain’s strategic interests will not change in 2019 when we leave the EU. They will remain the same as those of France and Germany. That is the geopolitical reality that neither we nor our EU partners must ever forget.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind was foreign secretary and defence secretary between 1992 and 1997.